Belgium’s Counterterror Struggles Underscore Long-Simmering Concerns

March 25,2016

WASHINGTON— The scramble by Belgium’s security agencies following the Brussels terror attacks is putting the country’s counterterrorism apparatus under an intense spotlight, with criticism pouring in from around the world.

With an urgent manhunt under way for suspects in the Brussels terror attacks, pressure on Belgium reached a new high – with the country’s interior minister offering to resign.

"If you put everything in a row then you can say that you can indeed ask big questions in a number of areas, about the justice department and the developments afterwards and also about the police," said Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister.

Criticism has come in from all over. Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan said one of the suicide bombers should have been on Belgium’s radar.

"We informed the Belgium Embassy with a [diplomatic] note about the deportation on July 14th, 2015. The Belgians [authorities] released the forenamed [attacker],” said Erdogan.

Some U.S. officials have also been critical. But what has them especially worried is that shortfalls in Belgium and other European countries are not new – many of them date back to the terror attacks in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005.

"We need to speed up some of the proposals we've put on the table to find the money to make sure terrorists can't use credit cards or prepaid cards, to make sure that we track where the weapons are," said Frans TImmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission.

There is hope a new European Counter Terrorism Center will help, but many current and former counterterror officials say a wake-up call is long overdue.

“Not many of our European friends have their game at the level we have it at when it comes to sharing information,” said former CIA director Michael Hayden.

There is also concern about empowering Europe’s security agencies – making sure they have the legal and technological reach to get critical intelligence in a timely fashion.

“I predict it’s going to create great stress within Europe as these various nations begin to realize that they may have to recalibrate this necessary balance between their citizens' privacy and the right to life,” said Hayden.

As one U.S. official put it, the Islamic State terror group is “lighting a match” – forcing security agencies to race against the flames.